An online seminar hosted by Schüco and Architecture Today explored sustainability within practice and how this can inform wider working methods.

Championing sustainability in construction projects is vital, but what can architects and engineers do to improve the performance of their own practices? How is an ethical position on sustainability developed and fostered within the office? And how can this inform the way that a practice works? Answers to these questions and more were explored in an online seminar hosted by Schueco UK. Chaired by Architecture Today editor Chris Foges, the panel comprised Anna Graaf, director of sustainability at White Arkitekter; Peter Fisher, director and head of sustainability at Bennetts Associates; and Maria Smith, director of sustainability and physics at Buro Happold.

Peter Fisher’s presentation examined the key aims behind Bennetts Associates’ five-year sustainability plan. Introduced in 2017 and underpinned by science-based targets (SBTs), the plan is being applied across three main areas: business operations, design and employees. “SBTs are central to our numerical-based approach,” explained the architect. “We apply them to ourselves and to our projects. We’ve found that understanding them as a business has been a powerful driver for change.”

Fisher confessed that measuring the practice in terms of sustainability had not been as difficult as first thought, and that Mike Berners-Lee book, ‘How Bad Are Bananas’, had played an important role in the task. Most importantly, this had given the office a baseline from which to track future progress. Unsurprisingly, energy use and business travel accounted for the largest carbon footprints pre-Covid. Among the measures taken to improve performance in these areas are purchasing energy from renewable sources and offsetting carbon emissions through UN-approved mechanisms.

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Speakers from left to right: Anna Graaf, Peter Fisher and Maria Smith

In terms of design, the practice has committed to undertaking embodied carbon analysis –using EPDs – on the main components of all its construction projects by 2022. It has also pledged to carry out data tracking and post-occupancy evaluation on a set number of projects every year through the Soft Landings Framework and the Building Use Studies Methodology.

Our Low Carbon Travel Days scheme is not very expensive but it has had a huge impact of the office’s collective carbon footprint”

In the case of employees, the practice has introduced voluntary and anonymous staff carbon footprint analysis. Once again travel, and in particular flight, was shown to have the greatest environmental impact. This has led the architect to implement its Low Carbon Travel Days scheme, where employees are encouraged to travel (over a set time or distance) by train rather than aeroplane in exchange for two extra days of holiday. “The scheme is not very expensive, but it has had a huge impact of the office’s collective carbon footprint,” said Fisher. Perhaps most surprisingly, was that after flying, the biggest carbon impact for most individuals was found to be their pension fund. Fisher spoke of the need to move away from investing in fossil-fuel based businesses.

According to Anna Graaf, the core aim of White Arkitekter’s business is to use architecture to drive the transition towards a sustainable way of life. The practice has set clear sustainability targets and by 2023 it aims to provide climate declarations for all projects, achieve carbon neutrality on 30 per cent of its schemes, as well as a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from travel, energy, purchasing and waste. “All projects start with sustainability analysis,” explained Graaf. “We also look closely at health and wellbeing. This has led to 39 per cent of all designs being BREEAM or LEED certified, 47 per cent of schemes exceeding the Swedish energy regulations, and a 19 per cent increase in the number of timber buildings produced by the practice.

It’s important for us as a company to practice what we preach”

After showing some examples of the practice’s environment-led designs, Graaf spoke about the importance of the company’s White Research Lab. This undertakes a wide range of practice-focused R&D work and is currently concerned with circular architecture and healthy living environments.

Moving onto sustainable office-based initiatives, Graaf said, “It’s important for us as a company to practice what we preach. Every year we measure our climate and environmental impact. This has helped us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 66 per cent since 2014.” The negative impact of business travel has led the practice to favour train transport where possible. It intends to use trains for 50 per cent of all journeys to Europe by 2023. Elsewhere, a ‘Climate Budget’ for office study tours, in which air travel is used only every third year, has resulted in an 81 per cent decrease in CO2 emissions.

Maria Smith explained how Buro Happold is adopting a highly analytical and target-based approach to reducing the practice’s carbon footprint. The company has set out a number of ambitious commitments following the publication of its first Global Sustainability Report in 2019. These include achieving net zero carbon for its business operations by April next year and ensuring all new-build projects are net zero carbon in operation by 2030.

It’s really important that we don’t just set sustainable targets and then forget about them”

Smith underlined the importance of being able to accurately measure the practice’s carbon footprint through direct, energy indirect and other indirect energy sources. This has enabled it to initiate a five-step approach to reducing operational emissions for net zero carbon. Included is a commitment to science-based targets, setting annual business travel carbon budgets, and increasing home-based working. “It’s really important that we don’t just set sustainable targets and then forget about them,” said Smith. “They need to be carefully monitored and respond to changes in circumstance accordingly.”

With regards to sustainable design practices, the engineer is integrating embodied carbon assessments into its standard scope of works. This is being undertaken using a range of different tools, from simple Excel spreadsheets to a Rhino interface with the company’s buildings and habitats operational model (BHoM).

Overall, the webinar demonstrated architects’ willingness to lead from the front when it comes to combatting climate change. While significant progress is being made, there undoubtedly remains more that can still be done to improve the environmental performance of practices and the buildings they produce.